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Harford schools chief wants control over county executive's planned public employee bonuses

BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

4:17 PM EDT, November 1, 2011

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Even before it was announced last week, the $1,250 public employee bonuses offered by Harford County Executive David Craig hit a snag with Harford County Public Schools.

More than $6 million of a $32 million county budget surplus is supposed to be headed for more than 5,000 school system employees under Craig's plan, but multiple sources say School Superintendent Robert Tomback immediately raised questions with Craig about who has the right to control the money and to decide how it is doled out.

Craig confirmed Monday the school system would have to renegotiate with its five employee unions to approve the bonuses, which Craig plans to distribute in two installments in December and next June as part of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget. He also said he and Tomback have come to an apparent accord in their dispute following a meeting earlier in the day.

The school employees are the largest group affected by the bonus plan, which is also supposed to go to all county government workers, sheriff's office employees, court service employees, the state's attorney's office and the county library system. In all, between 6,500 and 7,000 employees will be affected at a cost of more than $8 million.

One source said Tomback began raising his concerns with Craig over the planned distribution of the money affecting school employees almost as soon as the superintendent learned about the bonus plan. But a school system source said the superintendent was not being confrontational with the county, but merely expressing his concerns that the collective bargaining agreements and state laws governing school funding be respected.

At one point, Craig is said to have informed school officials that he – Craig – would hand out the money himself, if Tomback didn't cooperate with him.

Tomback persisted, however, and the two sides appeared headed for a potential legal battle before Craig and the superintendent met Monday morning.

Following the meeting, Craig told The Aegis the two of them discussed "the dollar amounts and [we] asked them [the school system] what they needed to do to be able to do this, and what we could do."

"The ultimate aim was to make sure that the money got spent the way [the county executive's office] wanted it to be spent," Craig said.

The Board of Education will need to vote to renegotiate with its unions because the unions were finished negotiations for this fiscal year, Craig said, adding: "Then we will amend the [county] legislation so the money goes specifically to the board of education."

Tomback, who is due to head off on a trip to China later this week, typically doesn't speak directly to the media.

His spokesperson, Teri Kranefeld, wrote in an e-mail Monday afternoon that the Board of Education has closed contracts for the school year with all five of the employee associations.

"If and when either party, the Board or the unions, want to make a change to one of the existing contracts they must enter into a discussion with the other party to reach an agreement to amend the contract," Kranefeld wrote. "We will be engaging in dialogue with each of the five employee associations in order to potentially amend the existing collective bargaining agreements so as to allow the bonus funds to be distributed."

The bonus proposal also has to be approved by the Harford County Council and is expected to be submitted to the council next week.

Craig said the situation with the school system was not a surprise.

"We knew that would be a potential issue, but we waited until this could come out [as an official announcement]," he said. "The issue for us, the county government, is we wanted to ensure it doesn't change the maintenance of effort…we knew that was going to be a concern."

Maintenance of effort is a controversial state requirement that can affect how much counties are obligated to budget their school systems from one year to the next based upon previous spending levels. Because the bonuses are tailored to be a one-time expenditure, the county does not want their cost being built into future school budget requirements imposed on the county, Craig explained.

The bonuses were announced Thursday morning to a roomful of excited county government employees. They are being made possible by the $32 million dollar budget surplus from the 2010-11 county fiscal year that ended June 30.